August 06, 2007 (the date of publication in Russian)

Yegor Kholmogorov


More on Russia's need of a strong navy. Part 2

Part 1:


The mythology of Eurasianism shapes the view of Russia as a "synthesis of Forest and Steppe", with the decisive role of the Steppe and a relevant legion of nomadic tribes. From this viewpoint, Russia is perceived as a geopolitical legacy of Asiatic nomadic empires, the Eurasian quality of Russia expressed in some kind of pan-Mongolism. That is where the view of Russia as a "terrestrial empire" originates from.

However, Russian classical historian Vasily Klyuchevsky wrote: "The forest, and especially the steppe, produced an ambiguous effect on a Russian. But with the river, he never had any misunderstanding. With the river beside him, he would awake, and live in accord with it. No other element of his country deserved as gentle songs as the river. That is quite natural, as the river showed him the way as he traveled; the river was his neighbor as he set up his village on a high bank; the river fed him during the lengthy meatless time of the year".

For a trader, the river was a perfect route both at summer and at winter time; that was the smoothest road where he had just to use the skill of steering and beware cataracts and sandbanks. To some extent, the river even served as a pacemaker. With its low gradient, the Russian river flooded the banks at a certain time of the year (unlike moody West European rivers), and thus precisely indicated where one should settle. Facilitating trade, shipping, gardening and grasscropping, the Russian river was educating the inhabitants of its banks in joint labor and communication.

The river brought up the spirit of enterprise, assembling folks into crews, pulling the scattered citizens together and making them feel themselves a part of a larger community. It taught them to deal with other peoples and to observe their habits and interests, to exchange goods and experience – generally, to acquire skills of handling neighbors.

From the standpoint of today, we can view Russian rivers as an indispensable means of cultural consolidation, colonization, and geopolitical expansion. The Russian nation expanded exactly along the routes of great rivers. Actually, Russia’s transcontinental essence emerged from the long-time skill of colonization along rivers unlike the Americans who expanded their colonization along land routes, for which their landscape was more acceptable.

Smaller tribes which occupied some of the Eastern lands were overtaken and absorbed by the Russian civilization exactly for the reason of having weaker skills of using rivers. In Vasily Surikov's famous painting "Siberia's Conquest by Yermak", one easily associates Russians, arriving on powerful ships, as an aquatic civilization, contrary to the Siberian Tatars with their terrestrial tradition.



Many old names of Russian villages and towns contain the radical "volok", meaning "pulling place" the most convenient site for portage of boats from one river basin to another. Thus, land itself in old Russian culture was perceived as an obstacle for travel by water. Overcoming those barriers across the whole expanse of the continent, the Russians eventually reached the seas; this took a lot of time, and eventually, reaching the coastlines of seas, including the Arctic Ocean, Russians recognized their country as a naval power. Therefore, they started navy-building later than other powers, but within one (XVIII) century, they acquired access to the blue.

Direct access to oceans is a definite advantage before access to landlocked seas. This advantage of Russia may become even greater with change of global climate. Not surprisingly, the possibility of Russia's approach to the Indian Ocean, across Persia or otherwise, has been a subject of panic in British geopolitics, inherited by the United States. Access to the Indian Ocean would make Russia a power of all the five world's oceans, inaccessible from any of them.

Relevant geopolitical nightmares motivated fervent efforts of Russia's rivals to mount obstacles for Russia's Navy-building by any means, including attempts to convince Russia of being a land power, with no need of seas. In case navy-building was just a fancy idea, the British and the Americans would not try to suppress the very idea of Russia's possession of a navy.

Admiral Sergey G. Gorshkov, Commander-in-Chief of the Soviet Navy in 1956-1985, commented on those alien efforts quite explicitly: "Insidious propaganda always insisted that Russia is not a marine but a continental power, needing the navy only for modest needs of protecting its coastline. It is true that Russia, with one sixth of the world's land in its possession, has been the world's largest land power. However, at the same time, it has also been a great naval power. Russia's sea borders almost twice exceed the coastline of the United States, and 15 times the coastline of France. The share of sea borders of Russia, the United States and France is approximately equal: around two thirds of the state border extends along coastlines of seas and oceans. Germany's coastline comprised only one third of its border, but Germany, a continental country, was never criticized for its intention to have a strong navy".

This view corresponds with a long-time tradition of national thinking. Peter I, one of the greatest Russian emperors, is famous for his statement: "Every potentate who has got only ground troops can be compared with a person with one arm; the potentate who has a navy has got two arms". Not less famous is the expression of his far successor Alexander III: "Russia has got only two allies: is Army and its Navy".



Russian culture has never been unsympathetic or superstitious towards the sea. For a number of old Russian tribes, like the Pomors from todays Arkhangelsk Region, the sea used to be the second home. Russians are less amenable to sea sickness than any other people. Thus is quite natural for an aquatic civilization.

A sailor has traditionally been one of the most respected vocations in Russia. The names of great Admirals Ushakov, Senyavin, Lazarev, Nakhimov, Makarov have become an indispensable element of patriotic thinking, as well as the glorious battles of Gangut, Chesma, Corfu, Athos, Sinop.

The names of sea travellers, who greatly contributed to the Russian school of geography, like Khabarov, Poyarkov, Dezhnev, Krusenstern, Lisyansky, Bellinshausen, Lazarev, Golovnin, Littke, Wrangel, Sedov, Kolchak and Papanin, have become similarly famous. Though in the Soviet period, exploration of seas was regarded as a collective and therefore anonymous job, a huge and decisive contribution of Russian sea researchers in exploration of the Arctic, the Antarctic, the islands of the Pacific, and the ocean bottom, is beyond doubt among scientists.



The view that the Navy never played a significant role in Russia's military policy originates, ironically, from general exaggeration of the navy's role in wars. This view dates back to the doctrine of US historian Alfred Thayer Mahan. In a vulgar interpretation, this doctrine gave birth to the view of the navy as a separate entity, allegedly independent from the power of ground forces.

As a matter of fact, purely naval wars are very rare in human history, encompassing those cases where the only subject of controversy was sea space alone. This type of warfare is exemplified by Anglo-Dutch wars, from which Mahan started his description of the Navy's role in history. However, both the British and the Dutch rivaled only for the water area, and therefore, naval battles alone were sufficient for the solution of the contest.

A war between two states may be restricted to a naval battle also in case only one of the rivaling sides, divided by a water area, embarks on a resolute offensive for instance, undertakes a landing operation, while the other side tries to repel the invasion. In this case, one counter-landing assault may be sufficient. In this way, the British succeeded in protecting themselves from the Invincible Armada. Smashing the Spaniards largely due to a happy occasion the British reached their objective in the war, as they were not planning deployment of their own landing teams to Spain.

In Russian history, a successful naval war with restricted objectives took place during the last Russian-Swedish war in 1788-1790. At that time, European policy, fearing increase of Russian influence, undertook an offensive from two sides: in 1787, a war was declared by Turkey, and in 1788, the Swedes launched a surprise assault in the direction of Nyslott, having a double advantage in manpower (38,000 against 19,000 Russian servicemen). This surprise attack posed a real danger to Russia, as the Swedes closely approached Saint Petersburg. The Russian side was waging a purely defensive war, using only the Baltic Fleet and the Arkhangelsk Squadron. In this effort, the so-called terrestrial power defeated the enemy exceptionally by means of the Navy, forcing the Swedes to evacuate Southern Finland, exhausting the Swedish navy and eventually coercing Sweden to sign peace.

This result was achieved solely by naval battles at Gogland, Aland, Rochensalm, Stirsudden and Vyborg. In case Russia did not possess a naval force, it would have to concede strategic territories to both Turkey and Sweden (resp. Crimea and Novorossia, and Southern Finland). Thus, a powerful navy enables the state to protect itself by a restricted defensive operation.



The mentioned Russian-Swedish conflict is just one piece of evidence for the fact that by means of a naval battle, a country with powerful land forces is able to inflict a defeat to a "purely naval" power. The classical historical example for this case is the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. At the onset of the war, the Spartans possessed only a land force. Meanwhile, the Athenians used the advantage of their naval force to intimidate adjacent island countries, and impair their adversaries by means of landing operations, surprise assaults from the sea and naval siege. The ancient Athens actually represented a classical example of a talassocracy, a marine power of the type described by modern authors as an alternative to a terrestrial power.

In the Peloponnesian War, Pericles, the ruler of Athens, relied upon the advantages of talassocracy. At first, Athens managed to achieve success, allowing the Spartans to occupy the territory of Attica and meanwhile preparing the capture of a number of noble Spartans on the isle of Sfacteria, and thus forcing Sparta into a truce. Pericles was convinced that the naval power of Athens would be sufficient to intimidate Sparta and force it to give up challenging Athenian hegemony. However, the Spartans used advice from Alcibiades, a defector from Athens, as well as the gold received from the King of Persia, to build up a naval force of its own. Possessing both a well-trained infantry and a newly-built navy, the Spartans attacked the Athenians at Aegospotami, destroying the Athenian ships in the docks and leaving Athens, whose land arms were scarce and badly prepared, without its major military potential.

The example of the Peloponnesian War illustrates that for a country with a traditionally strong land army, construction of a strong navy is quite possible; it also demonstrates that in case a naval power does not possess strong ground forces, the outcome of the war is decided in a naval battle.

There is one more example in history in which the outcome of a war was determined by a naval battle. In the last act of the civil war in Rome, the fleet of Caesar Octavian August, under the command of Marcus Agrippa, defeated Antonius and forced him to escape to Egypt, while his glorious ground troops, abandoned by the warrior-king, surrendered to Octavian.

Thus, a naval battle may determine the outcome of a military conflict, though traditionally, it serves only as an element of a combined war. In a large-scale war, involving naval and land warfare, a victory can't be achieved by the navy alone, even in case of a great advantage over the adversary's naval force.



During the Northern War, Peter I's army managed to skillfully neutralize the advantages of the "naval power". In 1720, when the British squadron of Admiral Norris crossed the Baltic Sea, Peter avoided a naval battle by protecting his sailing fleet by artillery. Subsequently, the Russians smashed the best Swedish ships at Grengam, and used marines for overtake of Umeo, before the British could assist the Swedes. Eventually, Sweden surrendered "at the eyes of the British Sirs", as Peter sarcastically indicated. This happened due to skillful coordination of naval and land forces.

In the Napoleonic wars, the naval battles at Aboukir and Trafalgar buried Napoleon's plans of intervention into Africa and of an assault on the British Isles. But these great achievements of Admiral Nelson did not predetermine the outcome of the war. In order to get rid of Napoleon, Britain needed Marshal Wellington, who landed in Spain and later defeated Napoleon's troops at Waterloo, with support from Russian and Prussian armies.

In the Crimean wars, Britain's naval force was again insufficient for success. After several failures in Kronstadt, Solovetsky Isles, and Petropavlovsk, the British had to launch a joint Anglo-Turkish-French landing operation in Crimea, to sacrifice its elite cavalry at Balaclava and to make use of Austrian blackmail of Russia in order to achieve a relative military advantage. On the other hand, Russia would be much more easily weakened, and undergo a much more humiliating defeat if it did not possess a navy.

In the Russo-Japanese war of 1905, the defeat of the Russian Navy in Tsushima was an illustrative episode but not at all the decisive battle. By that time, Russia's weakness was predetermined in Mukden (Shenyang) and Liaoyang, where Russian troops failed to use its initial advantage.

In 1940s, the US-Japanese contest for the Pacific, described as an example of a classical naval campaign, did not predetermine the outcome of World War II. The United States spent a lot of time, effort and manpower to "excoriate" the adversary from the Pacific isles. But that was a commando war and not a naval war. The decisive US assault on Japan was delivered from air. By the way, the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was launched not from the sea but from air bases on Mariana Isles.

In World War II, the role of the Russian Navy was ostensibly modest not because of being unnecessary or incapable of fulfilling its duties but because Russia was attacked, like 150 years before in the war against Napoleon, by a military power with a dominating potential of ground forces.

It is noteworthy that in World War II, as well as in the Napoleonic wars, Britain, with its powerful navy, was an ally of Russia. In June 1941, Germany could not use a large-scale naval force in the Baltic Sea largely because its major war ships, such as Scharhorst and Gneisenau battleships and Prince Eugenius cruiser, were blocked by the British in Brest. In the Black Sea, major naval operations were impossible due to Turkey's compliance with the 1936 Montreux Convention which forbade passage of combatant vessels through Turkish Straits. Therefore, Germany attacked the Soviet Navy primarily by air force and mines.

Germany's active naval operations against the USSR were mostly determined for interception of convoys, as well as for the effort to prevent Russian ships to reach the territory of the neutral Sweden, as the Nazi hoped that the besieged Leningrad would eventually surrender, and the Soviet Baltic Fleet would afterwards try to escape to neutral waters.

However, Leningrad did not surrender largely due to the Baltic Fleet, with its two battleships, two cruisers, 21 destroyers, 69 submarines, and 79 torpedo boats. The Navy, along with the coastal artillery, strongly protected Leningrad from an efficient assault from the sea, which was anticipated by Soviet author Ernst Henry (Lev Hentov, a.k.a. Semyon Rostovsky) in his 1937 book "Hitler vs. USSR". Similarly, the Black Sea Fleet enabled Odessa to resist for several months and Sevastopol for almost a year.

In 1941-43, Leningrad and Sevastopol, the major naval strongholds of the USSR, efficiently contained a great amount of Nazi forces which could be otherwise used for an attack on Moscow and Stalingrad. Thus, a strong offensive naval force, possessed by the USSR, provided strategic conditions for the classical land war which determined the victory.

These examples from Russian history, as well as history of other European countries throughout ages, prove that the mythological "purely naval warfare” which Russians are allegedly incapable of, does not exist at all.

Russia's military success has historically been determined with the skills of war both on land and sea, with a correct combination of force of the two muscles of the military machine the Army and the Navy. Russias land muscle is stronger, but that does not mean that the naval muscle is unnecessary, especially regarding its strength and glorious background.

For USSR, World War II was a war for survival, in which the enemy force deeply penetrated into the nation's territory, demanding mobilization of land forces and aviation, as well as a guerilla movement on the occupied territory. Acquisition of nuclear weapons has since saved the nation from wars of this type. In the following decades, warfare was waged by Russia's enemies either by psychological means or on territories of third countries. Possible future wars (for instance, for the debated territories of ocean shelf) are likely to develop also outside Russia's borders, and primarily in the sea. Thus, the role of Russian Navy is strategically increasing.

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